Native Advertising vs. Sponsored Content: What’s the difference?

Valerie Turgeon May 4, 2017

If you have two pieces of content that are battling head-to-head in a kind of content tug-of-war, which one will come out victorious?

To measure the strength of a piece of content, there are many factors.

There’s the quality (does it provide valuable information in a well-written way?), SEO, organic social promotion, automated emails and other outreach tactics.

However, putting some dollars behind a piece of content is like eating a protein-packed breakfast before the big tug-of-war match. It’ll give you an extra boost to put you ahead of your competitors.

In fact, as Brandpoint president Scott Severson notes, “to drive results for clients today, paid media must play a role in your overall strategy.”

Native advertising and sponsored content are forms of paid media strategies that have become more popular in just the last couple of years.

The terms have been used interchangeably, but there are actually very distinct differences, which we’ve outlined below. We’ve also listed some recommendations and examples so that you can start using paid media as a tool to boost your content and win the extremely competitive content tug-of-war.

Native advertising

What is it?

Native advertising is a media placement that fits the form and function of the surrounding editorial content on a webpage (it should look “native” to the page). The ad links to either sponsored, owned or earned media—really, anything the brand wants people to read.

Once you click on the ad, it will likely send you to a lightly branded article. You’ll usually be able to see a couple brand mentions as well as a branded CTA. The most effective types of native ads are those that, although slightly branded, proved real, actionable value for the reader.

What does it look like?

The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) offers a list of six types of native ad formats that satisfy the definition. These forms include:

  • In-feed units (presented on publishing websites as well as social platforms)
  • Paid search units (the ads at the top of your a search platform)
  • Recommendation widgets (Outbrain, Taboola, StackAdapt, etc.)
  • Promoted listings (on shopping websites such as Amazon or Etsy)
  • In-ad with native element units (Appssavvy, Martini Media, EA, etc.)
  • Custom/”can’t be contained” (Hearts, Flipboard, Tumblr, etc.)

In all of these cases, the ad looks like its surrounding content. If you’re shopping for shoes on Amazon, you may see a promoted post off to the side or underneath that looks like the other shoe listings but is labeled as an advertisement.

In-feed units and recommendation widgets will only include a snippet of copy to grab a reader’s attention which usually consists of a headline and description with a single photo. Ideally, your native ads should match the user’s experience on that page including the fonts, colors and functions.

Why would you use native ads?

Native ads are better used to satisfy brands’ long-term goals for building credibility and trust with consumers. According to Business Insider, native ads (typically sold on a pay-per-click-basis) will account for 74 percent of all ad revenue by 2021.

Sharethrough found that readers spend just as much time viewing native ads as they do editorial content. Native ads were also found to increases brand lift by as much as 82 percent.

Because you can use native ads to drive traffic to different types of content, flexibility is a huge plus and you can extend the shelf life of positive earned media. The ability to measure views, clicks and post-click engagement on a native ad allows you to analyze the success of each campaign and conduct A/B testing to choose the best performer.

Examples of native advertising:

Promoted listing: Etsy features artisan and handmade products sold by individuals. You can search a large variety of products. Here, we searched for wedding centerpieces:

You’ll see that the first row includes products that display an “ad” icon in the upper left corner of the images, which is an example of a promoted listing. This type of native advertising boosts views of a brand’s products to ensure they’re not listed deeper in the listings.

Paid search units (most commonly, Google Adwords): When searching for a new product on a search platform, a paid search unit will appear at the top of the search platform, similar to the promoted listing.

Recommendation widgets: Using tools like Outbrain or Taboola, you can create an ad that links to any content that you’d like to promote. The ad will appear at the bottom or on the side of of an article on a website. Here’s a common example of what those native ads look like:

Sponsored content

What is it?

Sponsored content can be considered a type of native advertising because it also fits the form and function of its host.

The difference is that it’s not an ad. It’s a longer-form piece of brand-sponsored content such as an article or video that lives on a media publisher’s site.

This content tells a full story and is written and produced to be as engaging as possible, encouraging an audience to spend a long time with the content. Like native ads, the most successful sponsored content provides useful value to readers, either by educating or entertaining.

As a marketer, you can direct the message and even create the copy and doesn’t require the involvement of another platform. Some publishers have teams dedicated to creating sponsored content for their brand partnerships.
Typically, sponsored content is less restrictive than native advertising and publishers give brands leeway to be creative and engaging—as long as the post is cleared marked as “sponsored” or “promoted.” This also means that brands can mention a product or service and include a call to action in the content.

What does it look like?

Sponsored content can be anything from an article to video to a listicle, as long as it looks like a native part of the publisher website.

You’ll see collaborations between brands and publishers on media sites like BuzzFeed, Forbes, the New York Times, Huffington Post, etc. These major publications have actually developed content studios dedicated to create and host sponsored content (see a few examples below).

Partnering with a content studio, however, is rather spendy. BuzzFeed, for example, charges around $100,000 for a piece of sponsored content. Brandpoint’s unique and expansive publisher network gives you access to a massive audience for a small fraction of the cost.

Most print publications also have sections dedicated to sponsored content. The articles will include similar elements used throughout the publication, such as using the same font and colors, but may include a gray background or another element to set it apart as sponsored content.

Why would you use sponsored content?

Though sponsored content is less restrictive, it’s best used for short term benefits, according to

By publishing a helpful article, a brand positions themselves as in expert, or a major storytelling voice, in their field. The goal is to encourage consumers to trust the brand and to rely on the company’s content and their products.

When a big story comes out, businesses are more likely to see a sales jump. However, such content can also establish long term brand awareness for consumers who may enjoy a brand’s content, but may not necessarily regularly consume or purchase their products.

Examples of sponsored content:

The Renewal Project: Partnership between Allstate and The Atlantic
With its own URL (, Allstate insurance created a collection of stories to “highlight, support, and celebrate ordinary people creating extraordinary community renewal.” The website is just one factor in a series of other “renewal” campaigns, created by Atlantic Media Strategies, the content studio for The Atlantic.

Cocaine Economics: Partnership between Netflix and The Wall Street Journal
To promote new television show “Narcos,” Netflix partnered with the advertising department of The Wall Street Journal to create a standalone piece of content digging deep in the show’s central issue—violence among cocaine traffickers. The content is highly engaging with the text broken up with illustrations, interactive animations, pull quotes, video clips of the show and links to relevant WSJ content.

Can You Guess Which Animal Fact We Made Up?: Partnership between Wendy’s and BuzzFeed
Wendy’s is a brand publisher on BuzzFeed, and their content usually doesn’t have much to do with their actual food. Rather, they post entertaining content to attract readers. In this case, Wendy’s takes the engagement even further by creating a quiz to test readers’ animal knowledge, containing, as Wendy’s states it, “pretty unbelievable facts, just like how the quarter-pound Double Stack shouldn’t be in the Wendy’s 4 for $4.”

Compare and Contrast

[Check it out: Sponsored Content vs. Native Advertising Infographic]

In today’s content marketing landscape, paid media is a necessary strategy to reach your target audience and achieve inbound marketing goals.

Both sponsored content and native ads are tactics that help get your content seen and establis greater brand authority and longevity, but are very different in form and purpose.


Valerie Turgeon May 4, 2017

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